US: Face Your Jungian Shadow… And A Bad Ending

This review contains complete spoilers for Us.

When Get Out got to the Coagula my heart sank. The movie had been doing so well and then it got to this explanation for the underlying mind-switching and I was deeply concerned. You can really kill the magic of a story by going here, and too often filmmakers don’t understand that we don’t actually care how the magical stuff in a movie happens, we just want to be assured there is a reason.

Thankfully, Jordan Peele kept Get Out moving at such a clip – and kept the Coagula so weird and so aesthetically connected to the film’s themes – that it was only a bump in the road. The movie didn’t get bogged down in the Coagula, and I didn’t walk out with the logistics of the Coagula itching at my brain.

I wish I could say the same about Us.

For most of its runtime, Us is a remarkably tight, human, scary and funny movie that folds its thematic concerns within its action in a deeply unsettling way. But once the movie reaches the finale, as the scope of the film truly widens out from the travails of one family facing their own doppelgängers and the reveal is made that this phenomenon is definitely not personal OR local, Peele loses his sure grip. They way that he sprinted past the Coagula? He cannot sprint past the mechanics of Us, and in the film’s last minutes he introduces a whole new aspect to the movie that is maddeningly incomplete, doesn’t make a lot of sense and that rather than grease the thematic wheels opens up a whole branching underground subway system of questions that cannot be answered – and I don’t mean that in a metaphysical way.

I’d like to stop here and say, with some modesty, that I think I ‘get’ Us (which is almost certainly the kind of pride that goeth before the fall). There has been a lot of talk about the movie reflecting the haves versus have nots politics of the present moment, but I don’t think that actually works (the text of Jeremiah 11:11, the Bible passage central to the movie, explicitly tags the doppelgängers as evil). I think that Us is quite specific in what it’s about, and it’s about the Jungian concept of the shadow, the side of ourselves that we do not know because we ignore it and hide it away. Traditionally our shadow is the stuff we don’t like about ourselves, our negative impulses and desires, and our inability to confront our shadow leads to all kinds of bad outcomes. Us has a family confronted by their shadow, and then expands that to show a nation confronted by its shadow.

The movie is super Jungian – the emphasis on synchronicity, the use of archetypes like the dark forest and the ascent from/descent to the underworld of the shadow – and this is what Peele is talking to us about. It’s political in that politics is made up of people and society have shadows – dark sides – that they not only don’t discuss, they often deny even exist. Adelaide’s suppression of her trauma (does she remember who she is before the end of the movie? A great question to explore) represents the way that all of us suppress our shadow, and the way that her shadow overtook her life at a moment of trauma represents the way that untreated trauma can spin us into totally different people.

So what Peele is saying here is that the unexamined parts of ourselves will destroy us, and that our collective shadow is destroying our country. This is not a racial or a partisan message – Peele is showing this happen to every living American. When Red tells Adelaide “We’re Americans” it sounds like some kind of dark commentary on race, but I think that it’s the movie very simply telling us what’s going on – Peele sees our society as one where the shadow, long suppressed and denied and ignored, has wrested control. This is why the Jason character is key – at first I thought him being into magic and monsters was just Peele putting himself into the movie, but the reality is that Jason’s interests represent one of the ways that we can tap into the shadow and actually control it, which Jason literally does in the movie. Peele is telling us that horror movies like Us, which actively bring our shadows into the light, can help us deal with our shadows.

There’s a lot more, and I could probably write a bunch of analytic essays about the excellent, deep and wildly thought out thematics of the film (you could do a whole paragraph on young Adelaide dropping the apple, symbol of Edenic purity, into the sand before going into the maze to find herself). I actually think there’s a solid (likely unintended) read of this film as a panic response to the growing tide of socialism in the country (again, Jeremiah 11:11 makes all positive social justice reads on this film impossible – the lower caste dwellers are explicitly called evil). But I won’t – I’m simply trying to let you know that my problems with the film’s ending are not about me bouncing off the surface of the thematics or not being involved in the meaning of the film. And I’m not saying this Jungian interpretation is the only interpretation of the movie (although I do believe this is the conscious meaning of the movie and represents the intentionality of Jordan Peele). Us is working on archetypal levels that allows many perspectives, and the ways that it brings forward the shadow invites our own personal shadows to make themselves known through our interpretations.

(And I don’t think there is only a Jungian aspect. There are interesting themes separate from that, such as the running use of nostalgia, especially in the form of music. You could do a whole essay on the range from Black Flag shirts showing up in past and present to “I Got 5 On It,” that I think speak about the persistence of the past and thus trauma)

So for the first two thirds of the movie Peele has this incredibly tight horror story, told on a deeply personal level. His script is masterful, setting up characters in quick vignettes (although I still think he could have used another draft. Stuff like Zora talking about flouride in the water out of nowhere, that conspiratorial nature never again referenced, is sloppy) and creating a family that we really like, even as they have the foibles of real human beings. When the home invasion began I realized I was very tense not because the movie was scary (which it is), but rather because I legitimately didn’t want anything bad to happen to these people. I liked them a lot.

When he gets to the cat and mouse stuff of the home invasion – the Funny Games style part – Peele proves that he’s an extraordinary filmmaker. Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Peele creates terrifyingly dark tableaux that are gorgeous. Working with editor Nicholas Monsour, Peele creates extraordinary timing of his gags, both horror and comedy, sometimes both at once. Peele as writer/director has an extraordinary facility for tonal shifts, and his comedy never undercuts his horror.

More than that, Peele is the greatest filmmaker of his generation when it comes to his influences. He has that Quentin Tarantino gene, which allows him to synthesize his influences into something new; you can recognize the movies that inspired US, but US is never a series of nods or homages to those movies. Just as Tarantino takes the stuff that mattered to him and chews it up and returns it as something uniquely him, so Peele takes movies like The Birds and Jaws and The Time Machine and really does his own thing with them. I love this about him, and I wish that more filmmakers had this ability.

I also wish more filmmakers had Peele’s talent with actors. In both Get Out and Us he takes actors we have seen and liked in other things and has helped them get to the next level. Lupita Nyong’o finally gives the true follow-up performance to her debut in 12 Years A Slave, and her Adelaide/Red is a tour de force both physically and emotionally. Most exceptional is the way that she explores the jagged places in Adelaide without ever compromising her reality or relatability. Even as she transforms in the final act into an action hero, she still maintains a substantial undercurrent of reality that grounds her even when she’s doing nonsensical things like getting out of the car again and again.

The rest of the cast is also great (except Tim Heidecker, who is really miscast here. This isn’t a slight on the actor but rather a recognition that the role he’s asked to play is so close to his comedic wheelhouse that the character feels like he escaped from a sketch), and I love the way Winston Duke is playing Peele himself. The kids are incredible – Shahadi Wright Joseph’s Zora is a complicated young woman and I think Evan Alex as Jason/Pluto is straight up the movie’s MVP – and Peele gets high level adult work out of them. As a performer Peele understands how to work with his actors in a way that gets their best, and I imagine we’re going to see Hollywood’s biggest names and most exciting up-and-comers lining up to take any bit part in Peele’s films moving forward.

All of this comes together to make two extraordinary acts of the film. The reveal that doppelgängers are appearing not only to our main family but also to their friends is done exquisitely – you think at first that Red has gone after Adelaide’s friends, but then you see the scope of what is truly happening. It’s a seismic moment wherein everything you think you understood about the film is upended, and it’s also the moment where Peele loses his sure handedness.

When he’s working on the personal level – the shadows (and by the way, the movie explicitly calls them this, bolstering the Duh, It’s Jungian read) interacting with their tethered doubles – Peele is doing everything correctly. But once he pulls the focus out on a bigger picture he’s standing on less stable ground, and I think his reach exceeds his grasp.

There are a couple of problems that pop up at the end. The first is that I suspect the finale of the film – the big Hands Across America thing – began as an image Peele had that he reverse engineered into this film. He sets Hands Across America up in the movie as a thing that exists, but I don’t think he sets it up properly in terms of thematics. It’s an arresting image, and it’s open to interesting interpretations (are the lines of red jumpsuits representing communists linked to destroy America or are they red-hatted MAGAts building a wall to divide America? The Jungian interpretation is neither – that it’s simply the shadow is trying to be seen and must be recognized), but in the end it feels disconnected from what has gone before.

And then we get to the Coagula of it all, the big explanation for the doubles. The Coagula hinted at Peele being too interested in the ‘how’ of the stories he’s telling, and US proves it. At my showing of Us I saw a trailer for Little, about a mean boss lady who wakes up in her own 13 year old body. She gets that way because someone makes a wish, and this is a whole genre of comedy film. It’s a cheap and lazy way to make the central conceit happen, but it has one really big upside – wishes allow you to just jump to the conceit without having to spend a lot of time on logistics. You can just explore the conceit.

Peele wants to explain how the story gets to the conceit, which is a very modern impulse, and one I don’t much like. It’s the impulse behind Rob Zombie’s Halloween (or even Halloween 6, which explains why Michael Myers is unstoppable). There’s room in the movie world for weird science meets metaphysics (see John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which also is a big inspiration for this movie), but you have to do it right, and the weird science needs to be more central. You either need to run past the Coagula, as Peele does in Get Out, or you need to make your movie about the Coagula. Us does neither.

Instead we end up with a bunch of exposition that raises more questions than it answers (who feeds the rabbits?!), questions that only become relevant because the movie makes a stab at explaining its conceit in a concrete way. Peele wants to do weird science meets metaphysics, with the tethered soul stuff, but in doing so he introduces a world whose logistics make little sense. This is one of those times when it would have probably been better to just say “We come from a realm like yours… but a shadow of it!” and leave the mechanics off the table.

The thing is that I don’t think you need the conspiracy lab stuff. Take Jason, for instance. In the movie as presented he can control Pluto, we assume, because he himself is half shadow (despite the shadows apparently being freed of their connection when Real Adelaide descended to the underworld and had the dance routine). But that scene works even better, I believe, in a purely Jungian and magical context – Jason can control Pluto because Jason wears the mask of his shadow all the time. He’s in constant contact with that part of himself. It’s the thematics of the movie anyway, but by taking the science babble out of the story it makes the thematic clearer and more upfront.

But more than that, I think that once Peele takes the movie out of the darkness and into the light, and once Adelaide goes from Alien to Aliens, Us loses some of its steam. It’s a classic case of a movie turning into its own sequel right at the end. There’s a version of US where the reveals about the larger world come at the last two minutes, a final sting on the film, but for me this version where the reveal comes with fifteen/twenty minutes to go falters. There’s too much exposition, and a lot of what should have remained emotional becomes literal. It’s the opposite of the JJ Abrams Mystery Box – Peele wants to open the box, show us the inside and maybe even give us a couple of pages of the instructions.

So that means that the stuff that is left hanging, or that is meant to be visually and emotionally evocative, feel like holes (where did they all get those red jumpsuits? That’s 300 million red jumpsuits!) when they didn’t need to be. They could have just been mysterious or weird. And for me this undermines everything that went before; the spookiness evaporates and the uneasiness goes out the window. There’s nothing eldritch remaining, just a movie with an uncertain understanding of genetics that is unwilling to go towards either full weird science or full supernatural (and, imo, unable to synthesize the two).

The ending of Us is so disappointing to me because everything that came before was so good. But, to use a terrible film writing cliche, Peele can’t quite stick the landing. I’m not mad that he tried the leap – it’s absolutely admirable that he took this home invasion concept and then had such a big swing at the end – but I have to judge the movie by what it does, rather than what it wants to do. What it does is give us over two-thirds of excellent, human, emotional terror before it pulls a slip and fall while attempting to get bigger and broader.

I don’t know if future viewings of Us will smooth out the transition for me – it’s possible – but I do know that I’ll treasure the stuff that comes first, the family interactions, the growing horror, the way that Peele makes his characters behave with competency and trust for each other. And I look forward to the next Peele film which, judging by Us’s box office, will have the budget that allows him to start with the scope with which this movie ends.

If I’m being harsh here it’s only because I believe Peele is the real deal, a truly great filmmaker who is doing what great filmmakers do – testing his boundaries and seeing where he can go. So very much of this movie works that I fully understand people who love it beginning to end; I love it beginning to right up until the last twenty minutes. And maybe I’m wrong; perhaps this movie is part of the groundwork of a new genre movement that captures the weird science/supernatural vibe of Prince of Darkness and takes it to the next level for new generations. Maybe a revisit when Us is on home video will take the edge off my complaints.

Whatever the case, I’m glad this movie exists. A truly original, well-made, wildly ambitious general audience horror film with rich, meaningful thematic concerns? Fuck yes, and I’d rather see Jordan Peele stumble at the end of a movie like this than a hundred The Nuns succeed in being mediocre.